Why I’m Leaving SEO

write me a letter...

Dear SEO…

I’ve never written a letter to a concept before. Makes me feel pretty high-falutin’, like Descartes or Foucault or that other guy. But it needs to be done because something’s changed. Me.

Oh SEO… How did it come to this? I’m not the shy, bashful kid you romanced and swept off his feet back in 2001. You wined and dined me with your dedication to content. We grew closer with our mutual affection for data and metrics. I remember how I couldn’t keep my eyes off your perky server logs and luscious spreadsheets. And you got into my pants with your qualified traffic.

I never thought that I was the sort of boy who would sleep with you on our very first date… but I was. Such was my fascination for your ROI. Your mystery and constant evolution drove our torrid passion forward to greater and greater heights. I’d just never felt so… complete and fulfilled.

But after 11 years, the time has come for us to part ways. I’m leaving you, SEO.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

The Eye of Eliza

I need to come clean about a few things here. The truth is that I’ve been looking at Information Architecture, Content Strategy, User Experience, and Service Design over your shoulder across the dance floor for the past few years. I like their moves, their devotion to customers, and their ability to think across channels. I like how they map the customer journey throughout a number of touchpoints – search engines just being one of many. And of course I like how these disciplines have the ability to remake organizations from within, breaking down silos and politics so that they can better focus on the customer’s needs and goals.

That’s what I like most of all. As much as I know that SEOs hold themselves accountable for understanding users and optimizing experiences for them, there’s still an intermediary: a robot. And while the best SEOs can provide great experiences for people and robots, I’ve become much more interested in the human side of that equation. And, to be fair, I think you would agree that Google thinks that user experience is pretty important, too.

That’s why I entered the Information Management graduate program at the University of Washington’s Information School a year ago. I’m deeply interested in the connections between people, information, and technology and this program provides a world-class education that balances focus across all three of these components. Since then, I’ve learned about structuring information for findability and use, designing across channels, managing information organizations, conducting statistical analysis, information retrieval, the systems development lifecycle, and much more.

I’m also interested in building things again rather that tweaking things that are built by others. As an in-house SEO at a large cooperative, I spend a lot of time building business cases, performing internal consults, educating my colleagues, and measuring and reporting results. But I spend a lot less time actually building new things for customers – it’s been a long time since I dug my hands deeply into design and production and content strategy to create something of real, tangible value. And when I’m honest with myself, I must admit that I miss doing those things.


Earth Asia Terminator View

So that’s why, as of today, I’m no longer an SEO. I’ve transitioned to a new role on a new team at REI that focuses on information strategy: standards, tool-building, competitive research and analysis, rapid/lo-fi experience prototyping, and lots of other fun, innovative stuff that I can’t talk about just yet. But we’re passionately focused on building things for people and providing for REI’s next hundred years of inspiring, educating, and outfitting people for their outdoor adventures and stewardship.

Believe me, no one’s more surprised about this than me; I certainly never planned to leave you, SEO. As someone who’s been focused on marketing and traffic-driving for the past decade, I’ll be a fish out of water here, like Arthur or Watson or Bilbo (hmmm… it’s funny how they all look alike). So I’ll be leaning on my colleagues in the design and development domains to help me ramp up in their areas.

But I’ll be providing something of my own, too: a keen understanding of how people use the web to find what they’re looking for. My experience in organic search, paid search, social media, content marketing, web analytics, decoding customer intent, and developing strategy will all play a strong role here as we ship new features and solutions to customers and iterate on them to drive satisfaction and happiness.

While I admit that it sounds non-intuitive and a bit outside the box to try building a team in this way, it’s not exactly a novel idea. Diverse teams have long been assembled and challenged to create alliances that pull off great deeds.

No Misunderstandings

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that IA or UX or anything else is better or somehow more valuable or more awesome than SEO… Except for maybe coffee, which is definitely better than SEO any day of the week (and twice on Sundays).

I’m super respectful of practicing SEOs (veterans and novices alike), link-builders, social media practitioners, and inbound marketers, especially those who keep evolving and adapting so as to bring in results no matter what the changes in algorithms might bring.

All I’m saying is that right now, for me, this is the path that I need to follow – the trail that leads out of the forest and into the clearing at the base of the mountains. It may not be your path, but I feel lucky and grateful that you’re here with me at the fork in the road.

Let’s Stay Friends

Let's just be friends

So I hope that we can stay in touch, SEO. Because I want to know what you’re up to. And because I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now without you.

You’ve shared so much with me. From Xenu to Caffeine to TAGFEE, the SEO community has been extremely generous to me and taught me everything I know about driving qualified organic traffic. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the knowledge you’ve shared with me over the years. When it comes to social media and engagement, web analytics, community building, web performance, site content infrastructure, conversion optimization, and a host of other topics, SEO was always my entry point.

No one is as open and sharing as the SEO community. From Webmaster World to SEObook to DistilledU and Moz, joining this community has been one of the best parts of being an SEO.

And I hope that I’ve managed to give valuable something back to you, too, even in a small way. For example, I would never take credit for the concept of Agile SEO – the application of Agile development methodology to organic search marketing – though I certainly did my best to popularize it during my presentations at SMX Advanced, Ad:Tech, and Seattle’s Social Media Club, not to mention that it’s the focus of my talk at MozCon in a couple of weeks!

Likewise, in my most Winnie The Pooh-like moment ever, I got a key aspect of pagination/canonicalization all wrong on stage during Vanessa Fox‘s panel at SMX. Much chaos ensued, as did much admittance of misunderstanding as well as general group hugging afterwards. But the good news is that Maile Ohye and her team at Google released the rel=next/prev solution for pagination just a few short months later.

Sure, it’s no Panda or Penguin – ha, it’s probably more of a Buffy, if it’s even a blip in the continuum at all. But I still think that Marshall Simmonds (who had a similar on-stage encounter with Maile earlier that year) and I helped make things better for marketers dealing with paginated content and search results… even if that’s not exactly how we intended to help.

Stay in Touch

One Does Not Simply Stop Doing SEO
One Does Not Simply Stop Doing SEO

An earlier draft of this letter contained links to tons of people who I felt had personally contributed directly to my growth and development over the past few years. But even after a hundred or so, I knew that I was still forgetting countless folks and decided that it would be a crime if I left anyone out, even by accident.

But you know who you are. You’re the greatest, the best there ever was. The ones who launched a thousand keywords, the ones who cracked the algorithm, the ones who drove the clicks against all odds, the ones who simply walked into Mordor …and came back to tell the tale!

You’re the ones who helped the most important people in the world – your users – find what they were looking for.

And I’m not leaving you. No way, no how. Never in this lifetime.

I’m just leaving SEO.

About Jonathon Colman

Jonathon Colman is a UX content strategist at Facebook, keynote speaker, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter @jcolman. Feel free to contact him directly.
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64 Responses to Why I’m Leaving SEO

  1. Pingback: Why I'm leaving SEO - Inbound.org

  2. Pingback: Search Engine Optimization» Blog Archive » Wanna copy my homework? A guide to the #mozcon lineup

  3. Akvile H. says:

    Congratulations on the new role, Jonathon! Super exciting transition and it’s great to hear that you will get to work on something that you are passionate about. Best of luck and rock it! 🙂

  4. Actually, what you are doing is a natural transition of implementing SEO into a bigger picture of organizing content, how it’s consumed and how it is broadcasted and shared. So to me, in a way, you are not really saying goodbye. 🙂 I think it’s awesome, and very, very smart. Congrats!

    • What Monica said – being on the building end, you’ll influence SEO significantly 🙂 Congratulations! Such awesome news – looking forward to seeing and hearing more about your new adventures!

    • I tend to agree with Monica. You’re not really leaving. You’re just focusing less on the robots. 😉 Isn’t IA, content strategy, and UI part of optimization? Your “departure” is a transition into a more holistic approach.

      This is incredibly exciting at the same time and an opportunity for those of us reading to consider how much SEO is not longer a “pure” activity of only traffic building.

      Jonathon, now is a good opportunity to express how much you mean to the whole community! We look forward to seeing how you influence REI and the rest of us!

      • Wow: Monica, Michelle, and Dana all agree with one another? Then it MUST be true: IA+UX is the new SEO!

        Thanks so much for all your support! I was a little worried about reception of this piece. But I love how there are so many folks like you three who see SEO as being a “Big Tent” community. I think that’s helpful for all of us, esp. as Google places more and more emphasis on UX.

  5. Kane Jamison says:

    Congrats again Jonathon – looking forward to hearing more about your new role on this soon-to-be-updated-frequently blog?

  6. Todd Nemet says:

    Hey Jonathon, great post and good luck on your new role. I will watch your career with great interest. I was lucky enough to sit by your during your “Winnie the Pooh” moment!

    • Hey that’s right – you were! And you may remember it as being the longest 10 minutes we’ve ever had.

      But Maile’s really great and helped me understand where I’d gone wrong and how our definitions of canonical and duplicative content were different. And now we’re in better shape on REI.com. 🙂

  7. Ross Dunn says:

    That was simply fantastic Jonathan and congratulations on the change; it is never easy to change directions. I think many of us veterans and perhaps novices alike are making career changes… just not in quite a classy fashion as you just did. Very enjoyable.

  8. Bill Sebald says:

    I’m glad to hear it wasn’t a career change out of frustration, not that I’d blame you. But it sounds like you’re off to build some things my last companies could have really used. Well done, sir.

    • And well done to you for starting up the new Seattle Agile Marketing meetup! Joann mentioned to me and it sounds awesome. I can’t come to your kick-off, but hope to make a future meetup!

  9. Scott Cowley says:

    Best of luck, Jon. This sounds like a great fit and a natural extension to your awesome skills. Couldn’t happen to a better guy.

  10. Michael Sola says:

    Congrats Jonathon – you will, as you always do, excel and be brilliant! Don’t forget us little people on your way up the ladder of success. 🙂

  11. Congratulations Jon and the best of luck to you!

  12. Aaron Weiche says:

    Best of luck and great post Jonathan! I look forward to the great things you’ll do with new areas to dive into.

  13. Carol Lee says:

    Congrats on your new role. And yes we will still be friends. Do you know who will be taking your SEO position?

  14. Bethany says:

    You make me laugh, that’s all we need in a relationship, don’t we??

  15. Phil Sharp says:

    Best of luck in your new adventures Jonathon. Ender, Barksdale and I are all excited for you. (Yes, I just mentioned my dogs in a blog post comment. I have no shame.)

  16. kevin hagen says:

    Jonathon; I think once you said that “it’s all about SEO”. This just proves it, you’re not leaving, you’re moving to a spot where you can up the game, embed the thinking and indeed show that when you’re doing it right, it is “all about SEO”….. congrat’s on a great move for you and for the co-op.


  17. Congratulations, Jon! Always loved the way REI implemented content strategy and your new role sounds like an awesome extension of that! Good luck.

  18. Gabe Garcia says:

    “Dear SEO,…” that reminds me of Homer Simpson’s letter to the movie Die Hard, “Dear Die Hard,…” Good luck and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

  19. Tim Loftus NZ says:

    Onward and upward mate, well done.

  20. SEO will always be your first love. I have tried to stray to PPC but SEO always pulls me back in.

  21. Lee Odden says:

    You’ll always be optimized in my book Jonathon 🙂

  22. marianne says:

    REI is one lucky organization to have you in charge of information strategy and I cannot think of a better application for your many talents. You’ve picked a good time to transition Jonathon. Well done and well deserved.

    Vaya con Dios compadre!

  23. Rick Backus says:

    May the agility be with you my friend! You are one of the most genuine people I have ever met and I have no doubt that you will kill it in your new role. Congrats on doing your best to avoid complacency and let me know if there is anything I can do to help you with the transition.

  24. Derek Edmond says:

    Good luck in the new role Jonathon. I’m sure your SEO expertise will give the role as an information strategist tremendously more impact. Sometimes there is nothing satisfying than mastering a nice, in-depth spreadsheet though 🙂

  25. Frank Watson says:

    Thanks for the mention mate but the link goes to Sherlock’s sidekick

  26. Rhonda says:

    We will miss you Jonathan — I am sure we will continue to tap into your knowledge.

  27. Alan Bleiweiss says:

    Dude! One of the most well written, if a bit seedy, farewell posts I’ve ever read. 🙂 Now – let’s just be clear – you’re an awesome guy Jonathon, and we’ll just keep it our little secret that what this is really about is your ability to get SEO into the mindset of the development cycle a lot sooner 🙂 #WIN

    Seriously though – you’re going to rock it!

  28. Sue Citro says:

    You had me at coffee and pandas. Can’t wait to hear about your adventures. I’m sure it’ll cause me to buy more shoes. Congrats to you kind sir, Sue

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  30. Building things rather than tweaking things has been on my mind for some time now, and I haven’t been in SEO as long as you have. As algorithm updates continually restrict our ability to “tweak”, creativity and “building things” are becoming, or rather should have been the right path from the start. Best of luck in your new adventure and thanks for the inspiration.

  31. Rajesh Magar says:


    Stop kidding, Please!

  32. Anand says:

    If the information management endeavor ever loses it’s allure, you can always be a writer, poet, philosopher. Love the new blog. Congratulations on your new job and path. I hope SEO doesn’t boil a bunny in your kitchen.

  33. Brian Klais says:

    Jonathon – congrats on the new role! But take it from me, once an SEO always an SEO. I once had one of those successories posters of a moonlit purple sand dune with a caption that read, “a mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original shape.” SEO discipline is like that; once mastered, it permeates everything, with UX and IA simply its highest expression … the graduate level, you might say. You’re not really leaving, you’re just becoming more influential. Make it rock. -Brian

  34. Dean says:

    Woohoo good for you Jonathan. Your a smart man that makes wise decisions. This is one of them. I’m sure that the near future holds lots of excitement in the non-seo-only world.

  35. Congratulations on the move! 🙂

  36. Marja says:

    Waaaait a minute – who is this SEO, UX and IA you’ve been flirting with?! I knew you were working too many long hours…

    You’ve got some explaining to do, Mr. Colman. 😉

  37. Margarita S. says:

    Loved your post (very clever!!). Good luck on your new journey!

  38. Del H says:

    “I’m not saying that IA or UX or anything else is better or somehow more valuable or more awesome than SEO… Except for maybe coffee, which is definitely better than SEO any day of the week (and twice on Sundays).” – Priceless

    Best of luck on your endeavors Jon!

  39. Pingback: What You Comment Upon Now Echoes in Bar Crawl Commentary « Content Muse

  40. Sad to see you go, but it sounds like you are on to bigger and better things.

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  42. Pingback: The State of Social Media in 2012: An Interview With The Speakers of #MozCon | Buypappa blog

  43. Your tagline/ Tolkien quote couldn’t fit better then now: “Not all who wander are lost.” Congrats on career path wandering – I suspect the knowledge and skills you picked up in your SEO career will serve you well in your new-found path. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if your new path finds a way to merge with your old path sometime in the future. (Sorry for the late reply – I was on vacation during your announcement).

  44. Pingback: Interview with Jonathon Colman of REI | John Doherty

  45. I hate to break this to you.. but as I’m sure you’ve found out.. you can’t leave SEO. Once an SEO, always an SEO 😛 it’ll be in your blood for life!

    On a slightly more serious note… I know I’m a little late, but best of luck!

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  48. my.opera.com says:

    You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something which I think
    I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me.
    I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

  49. Puis-je copier 2 ou 3 paragraphes pour mon blog personnel ?

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  51. Howard says:

    Just came across this post in a roundabout way. Very clever way of covering an otherwise potentially dry topic. And very humorous too. Nice post Jonathon.

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  53. Pingback: I'm Leaving SEO to Start a Career in Modelling | SEOno

  54. Vinish Garg says:

    Can we work towards measurable SEO goals without a spirited understanding of IA or UX? No. I think you will be dealing with same people, who have same convictions or apprehensions. Only that the face of currency will be changed now. Good luck, Jonathon. 🙂

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